Signs of life in Mars ?

New images of the Nili Fossae region are helping scientists understand unique geological features in the area. Methane in Mars' atmosphere is enhanced over Nili Fossae, leading some scientists to believe that the gas is produced there. The origins of the Mars methane could be geological or perhaps even biological.

Newly released images from ESA’s Mars Express show Nili Fossae, a system of deep fractures around the giant Isidis impact basin. Some of these incisions into the martian crust are up to 500 m deep and probably formed at the same time as the basin.

A wider contextual image showing the region around Nili Fossae. Credit: NASA MGS MOLA Science Team

Nili Fossae is a ‘graben’ system on Mars, northeast of the Syrtis Major volcanic province, on the northwestern edge of the giant Isidis impact basin. Graben refers to the lowered terrain between two parallel faults or fractures in the rocks that collapses when tectonic forces pull the area apart. The Nili Fossae system contains numerous graben concentrically oriented around the edges of the basin.

It is thought that flooding of the basin with basaltic lava after the impact that created it resulted in subsidence of the basin floor, adding stress to the planet’s crust, which was released by the formation of the fractures.

Nili Fossae is a system of deep fractures around the giant Isidis impact basin. The deepest are 500 m incisions into the martian crust (1). A strongly eroded large impact crater is visible on the northeastern edge of the area (2) measuring about 12 km across. A smaller impact crater southwest of the fractures measuring just 3.5 km in diameter (3). The surface material on the southwestern image border is much darker than the rest of the area (4). It is probably basaltic rock or volcanic ash originating from Syrtis Major. Credit: ESA/DLR/FU Berlin (G. Neukum)

A strongly eroded impact crater is visible to the bottom right of the image. It measures about 12 km across and exhibits an ejecta blanket, usually formed by material thrown out during the impact. Two landslides have taken place to the west of the crater. Whether they were a direct result of the impact or occurred later is unknown.

A smaller crater, measuring only 3.5 km across, can be seen to the left of centre in the image and this one does not exhibit any ejecta blanket material. It has either been eroded or may have been buried.

The surface material to the top left of the image is much darker than the rest of the area. It is most likely formed of basaltic rock or volcanic ash originating from the Syrtis Major region. Such lava blankets form when large amounts of low-viscosity basaltic magma flow across long distances before cooling and solidifying. On Earth, the same phenomenon can be seen in the Deccan Traps in India.

Nili Fossae interests planetary scientists because observations taken with telescopes on the Earth and published in 2009 have shown that there is a significant enhancement in Mars’ atmospheric methane over this area, suggesting that methane may be being produced there. Its origin remains mysterious, however, and could be geological or perhaps even biological.

As a result, understanding the origin of methane on Mars is high on the priority list and in 2016, ESA and NASA plan to launch the ExoMars Trace Gas Orbiter to investigate further. Nili Fossae will be observed with great interest.

"Methane is quickly destroyed in the martian atmosphere in a variety of ways, so our discovery of substantial plumes of methane in the northern hemisphere of Mars in 2003 indicates some ongoing process is releasing the gas," said Michael Mumma of NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md. "At northern mid-summer, methane is released at a rate comparable to that of the massive hydrocarbon seep at Coal Oil Point in Santa Barbara, Calif." Mumma is lead author of a paper describing this research in the journal Science.

Methane, four atoms of hydrogen bound to a carbon atom, is the main component of natural gas on Earth. Astrobiologists are interested in these data because organisms release much of Earth's methane as they digest nutrients. However, other purely geological processes, like oxidation of iron, also release methane.

"Right now, we do not have enough information to tell whether biology or geology -- or both -- is producing the methane on Mars," Mumma said. "But it does tell us the planet is still alive, at least in a geologic sense. It is as if Mars is challenging us, saying, 'hey, find out what this means.' "

If microscopic martian life is producing the methane, it likely resides far below the surface where it is warm enough for liquid water to exist. Liquid water is necessary for all known forms of life, as are energy sources and a supply of carbon.

"We observed and mapped multiple plumes of methane on Mars, one of which released about 19,000 metric tons of methane," said co-author Geronimo Villanueva of the Catholic University of America in Washington. "The plumes were emitted during the warmer seasons, spring and summer, perhaps because ice blocking cracks and fissures vaporized, allowing methane to seep into the martian air."
Mars Science Laboratory at Work, Artist's Concept

According to the team, the plumes were seen over areas that show evidence of ancient ground ice or flowing water. Plumes appeared over the martian northern hemisphere regions such as east of Arabia Terra, the Nili Fossae region, and the south-east quadrant of Syrtis Major, an ancient volcano about 745 miles across.
One method to test whether life produced this methane is by measuring isotope ratios. Isotopes of an element have slightly different chemical properties, and life prefers to use the lighter isotopes. A chemical called deuterium is a heavier version of hydrogen. Methane and water released on Mars should show distinctive ratios for isotopes of hydrogen and carbon if life was responsible for methane production. It will take future missions, like NASA's Mars Science Laboratory, to discover the origin of the martian methane.

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